Origins Of Bréifne

People ask me “what or where is Breifne?”

A previous blog posting I wrote asked more questions so it is a pleasure to add to this.

Through history there seems to have been 4 boundaries of the region we now call Briefne. As our tours focus on ancient traditions we follow a very old Briefne boundary, so please read on ……..

Where did the Briefne name came from ?

The name was brought into a north west region of Ireland by an O’Brien tribe or tribes referred to as the “Uí Briúin Bréifne” that sort of translates as “The O’Briens of the Mountains”.

It is said they were led by a Celtic Christian Abbot called Fechin from the mountains to the west of what is now Lough Mask in the Joyce Country that crosses the counties of Donegal and Mayo. This small exodus was around 500 AD. There is a remote ancient Holy Well below the Benbeg mountain south west of Lough Mask that is still named after St. Fechin.

Before the O’Briens there were the Erdinis

Some of this mountain O’Brien tribe settled into monastic life at what is now Tuam while others continued to travel to the edge of Connaught into an ancient region that had already been founded by an earlier tribe who became known as the Erdini. This region was also known as Erdini.

Many clues cause me to believe that the legend of the Tuatha De Dannan being driven into the “otherworld” by the Milesians was not about being driven into the land of the Sidhe through Keash caves and the fairy mounds but driven into the rocky less fertile lands within what is now Leitrim and Cavan.

Within this area a “capital” surrounding a temple, royal court and education campus evolved that maintained a dedicated honour of Lugh and the sun, long after Lugh reigned as high king from Tara.. This area was called Crom Cruach built up from the wonder of alchemy skills and wisdom that was introduced to this region by the Tuatha De Dannan.

Their Firdinis multiplied and their tribes expanded to settle around the shores of what is today known as Lough Erne, named after the Erdini tribe. These lakeside lands became known as Magh Eanagh, “land around the lakes”. The Erdini families that settled there became known as the Ernai tribe, by later scribes.

By the second century AD it appears that a tribe of Firbolgs, also from the mountain regions of Mayo and Donegal traveled to Erdini and joined the people there. They were attracted to this area with its reputation of teaching better farming and food yields from mountain land.

Some of these firbolgs merged with the Ernai people, presumably through marriage and treaties, and the area around the lakes became known Feor Magh Eanagh. How the Firbolg people gained the upper ranking to have their name integrated into this land’s name is unknown, but today the name of Fermanagh is a shorthand version of Feor Magh Eanagh.

The Lake split into two

As through all of history, when a tribe or clan grows differences of vision separate them apart, This was true of the lands around Lough Erne.

To the west of the lake the land maintained its name of Magh Eanagh, “land of the lakes” but tribes that multiplied on the eastern side decided to call their land Magh Uire “land of the waters”.

As the tribes each side of the Erne grew larger they became independent clans that established independent kingdoms.

On the west of the Erne the court of the clan king was established at Targoll and the clan became known as the Facmannii, with their children becoming the Macmannii. Today’s MacManus is from their name.

One the east of Erne the court of the clan king was at Rosgoll and the people became known as the Guirii after the name Uire. Today the Maguires are named after that land and this was the beginnings of Ulster today.

The Breifne region, thereafter, bordered on the western side of the Erne while a new region of Ulster bordered on the east

Arrival of the “Uí Briúin Bréifne”

These people, from beside Lough Mask are said to have first settled in an area now called Fenagh that was called Magh Rein back then. The Uí Briúin Bréifne tribe quickly expanded and broke into additional tribes that settled further east and west of Magh Rein as well as north over Magh Slecht and Feor Magh Eanagh.

When the Ui Briuin Breifne people arrived at Magh Slecht the Crom Cruach people already had a Christian understanding due to the earlier arrival of St. Patrick. Instead of being converted to Christianity they had merged their Christian faith with the faith of the Crom Cruach cult to form a new monastic life that combined spiritual faith with merchant skills. The Ui Briuin Breifne people of Magh Slecht blended into that culture.

Meanwhile, Fechin established his largest monastery on the border of Breifne at Fore, which is a beautiful place to visit today. There he lived out the rest of his life.

The O’Rourkes become the kings of Bréifne

Around 700 AD, well after the wars of the Northern O’Neills and O’Briens, against the large Southern O’Neills, a chieftain of the O’Briens, O'Ruairc, brought his tribe to command leadership over the Breifne people. Within a hundred years and with support of the Breifne people they fought back into Connaught and through the 10th and 11th centuries Briefne was merged back with the Connaught region while the O’Ruaircs reigned as High Kings of Connaught.

During the 12th century Tiernan mor O'Ruairc, re-established Breifne as its own kingdom independent of Connaught. However, he was challenged by the O’Reillys, a tribe of the O’Neills who had become resident to the east of Breifne, especially around Fore and areas that are now part of Co. Longford.

There was a famous great battle in 1256 between the O’Rourkes and O’Reillys near Ballinamore as both clans fought to rule Breifne. By this time the concept of rulership had changed from that of land stewardship to land ownership, a culture introduced by the new Norman immigrants.

The battle was settled through treaty at Tara with Brian ua Neill as judge. Brian ua Neill was the last real High King of Tara. The treaty was to divide Breifne in half. Breifne O Rourke became a region that is now all of Leitrim, about half of Co. Sligo and west of Co. Roscommon. Breifne O’Reilly (Ó Raghallaigh) became a region of all of Cavan and Fermanagh west of Lough Erne. They agreed to hand over the Longford and Meath parts of Breifne to Brian ua Neill in payment for his mediation and protection of the treaty against the Normans and the Northern O’Neills and Maguires who were solidly developing Ulster.

Other interesting bits of Breifne Region history

During the second century, Cairbre, a son of Nail Of The Nine hostages and founder of the O’Neills, took his tribe from Meath to live near the coastlines of the current Co. Sligo and Co Leitrim. This tribe then moved to lands north, now Donegal and Derry. They became the Northern Ui Neil clan and the O’Connell and O’Donnell clans descended from this clan while still supporting the Northern Ui Neils and even sharing kingship.

In the Annals of Four Masters there is mention of the Cenél Laegairi mic Neill clan resident west of Lough Erne as well as the Cenél Laegairi mic Neill being resident in Meath at the same time. This gives root to the two clans eventually being called the Northern O’Neills and Southern O’Neills.

For the above story my information came from the writings of    

  • Annals of Connacht
  • Annals of the Four Masters
  • Annals of Ulster
  • Book of Ballymote
  • A New History of Ireland, by Martin, Moody, Byrne 1984 that helps to make sense of the above ancient texts, but ask your library as this is a very expensive book re-published by the Oxford University Press.

Breifne Today

The recent Breifne tourist board tends to work with the final Breifne boundaries that combine the Breifne regions of Breifne O’Rourke and Briefne O’Reilly.

Celtic Ways of Ireland work with the more ancient boundaries set by the Erdinis and the original “Uí Briúin Bréifne”. After all, the Erdinis are part the ancient Ireland traditions our tours follow.

This larger Breifne region gives us wonderful freedom to include Loughcrew, Fore and Uisneach into our Breifne. It also provides an excuse for us to visit sites in the mountains of Galway and Mayo that the Erdinis originate from.

Sometimes, our tours get to the Bearra Peninsula in Co. Kerry where some descendants of the Erdinis moved on to well before early Christian times. They may well have built the many stone circles still existing on the Bearra peninsula.

We look forward to travelling through Breifne with some of you.

12 Barge 13

images left to right:
spring well source of River Shannon
barge on Lough Erne
Giant’s Leap cairn in the Burren, Co. Cavan 



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